23 February 2007

Worthwhile Books

My ability to read books far outpaces my performance in posting reviews of them — my supply of books is presently flooding my capacity to store them has been exceeded for quite some time. Not that every book is notable enough for the sake of a review, but the queue of ones I wish to write about keeps accumulating. Truly, I am blessed with the gift of speed reading; however, my writing pace is unable to keep up. Meanwhile, I was spurred to concoct this list, and thought I’d share it .

Now, mind you, significance is not necessarily the equivalence being the best. And significance here is purely a subjective slash, centered on my life’s walk, and those texts that sparked in me a quest for further discovery, or jolted me from the clutches of a uninformed and/or misinformed state.

Since the Bible is a given for any Christian, and would occupy the top of any Christian’s significant book list, my list here omits it.

  1. The Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill
    The Jesus story examined from the perspective of what the culture looked like at the time. The historical backdrop and its relevance explained, illustrating how upside down the kingdom Jesus advanced. Considered in the context, Jesus was more radical than is commonly conceived. Down is up, rich is poor, poverty is luxurious, triumph is gained by losing. Love replaces hate, shalom overcomes revenge, enemies are to be loved, a basin replaces the sword, etc…. This book was a big force in how I was transformed from Christian in word to Christian in deed.

  2. Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World by Jonathan Kwitny
    An eye opening book that awakened me from my Reagan-esque conservative slumber. Kwitny, former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, chronicles the follies and foolishness of U.S. intelligence organs intervening in foreign government activities in a post World War II world. Kwitny details how a vagabond backpacker trekking across the globe was more attuned to political matters than the CIA. Really stunning stuff, calling into question all the billions spent on meddling into the affairs that are of no concern to the average working American. Reading through some reviews at Amazon, I saw one reviewer note that Endless Enemies was sort of a precursor to John Perkins Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. No, while the themes of both books are tangential, Kwitny’s work is well researched, while Perkins is mostly constructed from his own empirical remembrances of anecdotal tales. True, Perkins was an inside man who now in a sense, came out and acknowledged his part in what many perceive to be less than ethical conduct that still goes on today, now in the form of Halliburton or Bechtel or other $BigDefenseContractor. Kwitny also authored a great biography of Pope John Paul II.

  3. The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community by David Korten
    A recent release, 2006, by the author of another one of my favorite books, When Corporations Rule the World. It’s not even been out a year, yet I’ve read it at least three times, and some chapters over a half-dozen times. Korten writes how globalization is just the recent most manifestation of Empire, in stark contrast to Earth Community — a sustainable and democratic model, in contrast to “Empire” which is the embodiment of a “fortune for the few and misery for the many” scheme that has been the dominant theme throughout history. David Korten is no starry eyed hippie — he was an insider that worked for the global organs he now identifies as advancing the interests of Empire over Earth Community.

  4. The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century by James Howard Kunstler
    A shocking read, one that is made truly gripping by the remarkable writing of Kunstler’s, who exposes how precarious our lifestyle predicated on the existence of cheap oil might be. Here is a review I penned of Kunstler’s work.

  5. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn No doubt that this work has been a treasure for those of a progressive ilk, but I had never heard of it until a family member brought it home and informed me it was serving as their history textbook at school. From the very opening chapter, the reader is riveted by Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress where Zinn cites the logs of Columbus and Bartolome de las Casas, a priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba, showing the Spanish conquerors in a different light than is typically portrayed in the schoolroom. Not that the theme is about blame, judgment or condemnation — instead, a look at how traditional Columbus history telling glosses over enslavement and mass murder as the “price of progress”. Zinn aims to elucidate historical insight from the perspective of everyone else besides the political leaders and generals. Each successive chapter, covering a segment of American history from the point of view of slaves, the oppressed, war victims, civil rights protesters and even plain ordinary working Americans. Even if your political philosophy is diametrically opposed to Zinn’s, his “follow the money” approach of examining American history is much deeper than the shallow, jingoistic fare that is usually trotted out.

  6. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
    An annual reading happenstance for me, this material should be part of every school child’s curriculum. Setting goals, repeating and reinforcing those goals every morning and every night is a bonafide recipe for success.

  7. The C Programming Language by Brian Kernighan, Dennis Ritchie
    Through the years, I’ve purchased reams and reams of computer books and sadly, the everlasting value of the lot of them is total nil. And typically, your average tome devoted to technology topics is chock full of pages and pages of unnecessary bloat. Even the few that are relevant and worthy for a short duration often take way too many words to lay the groundwork, explain a concept or illustrate a technique. Not the K&R book as it’s affectionally referred to. Terse, concise, succinct, less than 200 pages, but if you can grok and master, you can righteously call yourself a proficient programmer. This is the example that all computer books should strive for!

  8. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
    This is a non-fiction work but it really reads like a science fiction novel. At least after the initial chapters — where Kurzweil lays out how Moore’s Law not only applies to integrated circuits, but to most all advancing technology, and he illustrates this with charts and graphs plotting it all out. From there, it’s a trip into how the GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnology, Robotics) threads ravel together will revolutionize life as we know it. Intelligent medical agent nanobots, self healing organs, downloadable brains, and the prediction that some living today will witness the coming of human immortality. Kurzweil believes it will be, and is carrying out measures to ensure his longevity to be here for it when his prediction comes to fruition.

  9. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter An extraordinary work, written in 1979, and a huge impetus in my career choice of computer science. I don’t really know how to describe it — a book about “strange loops”, winding together bits of Lewis Carroll, the art of M.C. Escher, the music of Bach with mathematician Kurt Gödel’s theorem of incompleteness. In the simplest form, his discovery entails the translation of the ancient Epimenides Paradox into mathematical terms. A mind blowing trip into paradoxes of finite v. infinite, mind v. machine, and relevancy for artificial intelligence research.

  10. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich by Kevin Phillips
    A cogent treatise on “wealth and democracy” in America. Packed full of charts and graphs along with profiles of the richest Americans in each historical era, Phillips chronicles the source of wealth for the upper crust. And how wars historically have dramatically realigned the picture. But the impactful piece is the portion where Phillips draws parallels of the United States with past powers England, Spain and Holland. How we are trending towards a second Gilded Age as contemporary financial powers entrench their aristocratic hold at the expense of us all and our total economic health. How the Reagan era brought forth a focus on FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) business sectors while diminishing manufacturing and entrepreneurial ventures. Phillips is viewed as a “Republican turncoat” for this work, but I believe it to be most prescient. When favor is granted to those interesting in prolonging wealth off of that which is already built over those who build and make anew, that nation’s aggregate wealth is headed for a downward slope.

Honorable mentions

The following books almost made the cut, but got squeezed out in the final analysis. Partially because they are of a more specific focus, or perhaps they were impactful, but not as great as others that made the list.

  1. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis C.S. Lewis is an extraordinary writer, the words just eloquently stream from his pen onto paper. A treatise on what all Christians, regardless of denomination, believe, written carefully to avoid controversies between differing denominations.

  2. The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media that Love Them by Amy Goodman, David Goodman
    The lefty politics of Amy Goodman is too extreme for many, including me, but she’s a doggone excellent journalist and has written (along with her brother) an insightful book that exposes mainstream journalists for the establishment access seeking whores that they are.

  3. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
    Eye opening study of all the facets and segments of the fast food industry.

  4. The Secret War Against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed The Jewish People by John Loftus, Mark Aarons
    Lots of conjecture, based mostly on the author’s network of “old spy” clients, but it’s fascinating reading and in the vein of Kwitny’s work above.